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Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff during a Madison Common Council meeting at the City-County Building in Madison, Wis., photographed Tuesday, April 18, 2017. M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL


A homeless woman walked into a Madison library looking for help, but she spoke very limited English. She said one word: “Fulani.”

She left with a map, a referral for English as a Second Language classes and a place to stay.

Fulani is a West African language, and library staff used the city’s interpretation service to learn that the woman was seeking an English class and was recently homeless.

“By the time we were done, she just grabbed me in a bear hug and said ‘thank you,’” a library staff member wrote in a city survey.

That’s an example of the city’s free translation and interpretation services working at their best. But according to a recent city plan, there are only “minimal” services available upon request, and many limited-English residents (and some city staff) don’t know they exist.

“We have some things in place, but it’s just not a very clear system,” said Ald. Shiva Bidar. “Sometimes things fall through the cracks.”

In the new “Language Access Plan,” written by the Department of Civil Rights, the city outlines steps that will bring more comprehensive, standardized and well-publicized services to residents who speak limited or no English, or are Deaf or hard of hearing. 

The Department of Civil Rights formed a steering committee, held focus groups and conducted a survey of almost 500 city employees to inform the plan. The plan serves Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals, which covers those who have a "limited ability to speak, read, write or understand English."


Bidar serves on the city's Alcohol License Review Committee and sees the frequent need for interpreters for applicants. She’s also noticed a range in quality of interpreters.

That’s because there’s no “standard way of assessing the qualifications of interpreters right now,” she said.

The plan calls for city-approved “competent and culturally sensitive interpreters,” whether those interpreters are city staff or outside agencies providing in-person, over-the-phone or video interpretation. The plan calls for similarly high standards for those translating documents.

Mai Zong Vue, a leader in Madison’s Hmong community, said trained interpreters are needed to ensure no harm comes to the client.

Just because someone shares a background with the client doesn’t mean they qualify to be an interpreter, she said. Sometimes, less-fluent Hmong interpreters will translate language literally, which can be disservice to the client. For example, in Hmong, a phrase that literally means “yellow ear,” more holistically translates to sickness and loss of appetite, she said.

The plan says city staff are not allowed to use kids — or other untrained volunteers or friends — to translate due to quality and privacy concerns. Casually assigning translation or interpretation to bilingual staff is also inappropriate, the plan said, as it burdens employees who “are actually or perceived to be bilingual.”

“The plan really says bilingual staff shouldn’t be pulled in all directions, that’s not their role,” Bidar said.

Instead, the plan instructs the city to create testing standards for bilingual staff, and explore the possibility of paying employees in bilingual positions an additional $0.75 an hour.


The city wants to beef up current services, but it also wants to let people know about the services that already exist.

Because they assume they won’t be understood, individuals with limited or no English language skills may avoid or feel uncomfortable paying parking tickets, contacting their alders, reserving park shelters, obtaining building permits for renovations, or even contacting emergency services like fire and police, Bidar said.

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“Can you imagine?” Bidar said. “You have emergency personnel showing up at your house, and you’re trying to relay what’s going on and there’s a language barrier.”

In a survey of city employees included in the Language Access Plan, city staff were asked to describe the circumstances when they were unable to provide language services to a client. One city staff member wrote: “Russian speaking suicidal man on the west side.”

There’s also a push to make sure city staff are aware of how they can help LEP individuals. The survey found that about 30 percent of city staff have experienced a time when they are unable to provide language service to a client.

When this happens, clients may hang up, staff might tell the client to come again when an interpreter is available or pull up Google Translate to get by, city staff said in the survey.


Right now, there are no city staff with a job description that includes coordinating language services, but the four-phase plan includes hiring a full-time Language Access Coordinator and temporary staff. That could eventually turn into a whole division or department that focuses on language or access and inclusion, the report said.

In the meantime, the plan prescribes translating important documents, videos and parts of city websites into the city’s top three non-English groups: Spanish, Hmong and Chinese Mandarin. Translation will be done “on an incremental schedule,” the report said.

The plan also calls for the city to bring interpreters in those three languages and American Sign Language to certain public meeting and press conferences, as well as translate “all key press releases and citywide announcements.”

In 2018, the cost of these efforts is projected to be $122,000, broken down into $74,250 slated for interpreters at public meetings and press conferences, $43,460 for translating vital documents into Hmong, Mandarin and Spanish, and $4,290 for video translations.

The plan should appear before the City Council for approval in January, Bidar said. Once adopted, the plan is expected to be fully implemented in three to five years. 

“Good language access is another very specific way to reflect our values of welcoming immigrants, refugees, the deaf and hard of hearing,” Bidar said.